Learner Description: This page is for use by adults who are developers of Web sites. It is intended as an introduction to screen readers as a Web accessibility tool. It is also intended to help developers understand why it is important to follow Web accessibility guidelines, and to provide tools that developers can use to test Web pages with screen readers or screen reader simulators.

What Are Screen Readers?

Screen readers are a type of software designed to assist people with limited or no vision to read material that is normally presented on computer screens, especially pages from the World Wide Web. The software converts the text to synthesized speech that users can listen to. Users employ keyboard shortcuts to control the software, allowing them to start, stop, jump forward and back, hear lists of links on the page, select links, and perform other navigational functions. To get a better idea of how screen readers work, be sure to visit the links under Screen Reader Demonstrations below.

Although screen readers can do amazing things, they have some important limitations. One is that they cannot read text presented in graphics. Developers must provide text equivalents, either through alt tags or through other means, for such images. It is also difficult to quickly “scan” a page using a screen reader. Users often have to listen to a reading of the entire page just to find a detail that a user with good eyesight could quickly spot. Developers can help users of screen readers by structuring their pages with clear headings and a logical order to the content.

Screen Reader Demonstrations

Do you wonder what it’s like to use a screen reader? These resources will give you a little taste of what a person with vision impairment experiences.

Screen Reader Introduction: Video of a blind person explaining and giving a demonstration of how screen readers work

Screen Reader Simulation: A very cool hands-on interactive simulation of a screen reader. You are given only a black screen with keyboard shortcuts to control the screen reader, along with a list of tasks to perform on a fictitious Web site.

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Screen Reader Software

If you’re looking for screen reader software to use for testing your Web site, consider some of these options.

Jaws: A popular commercial screen reader. A demo version is available. The full version costs $895 or $1,095, depending on your operating system.

Thunder: A free screen reader from a British charity supported by Prince Charles. Runs on Windows. Can be installed on a Flash drive and used with any Windows computer by simply plugging in the Flash drive.

NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA): A free open source screen reader for Windows. Can also be run from a Flash drive.

WebAnywhere: A Web-based screen reader—simply enter a URL and press Enter to have the page read to you.

Free Screen Readers: A list of some free screen readers, including some for Linux.

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Screen Reader Tools

Learning to use screen reader software for testing is not easy. These tools can help.

Fangs: A Firefox plug-in that shows visually how a screen reader will parse a Web page. It is a quick way to check a Web page to see if it is put together in a way that is friendly to screen readers. It saves the time of listening to the entire page being read to you.

Setting Up A Screen Reader Test Environment: Instructions on how to set up a machine for testing Web sites with screen readers.

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